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Europe: Charter Aims To Protect Minority Languages

Innsbruck, 28 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- From dialects spoken by a few hundred in isolated villages to the millions speaking French, German, English and Spanish, people across Europe use as many as 225 different tongues to communicate with one another.

But is this Tower of Babel teetering? A recent article in the Austrian press asked, "Is Europe Losing its Tongue?" It noted that the forces of global mass communications may be bringing more people into contact with one another, but those same forces are also pressuring people to conform. Many Europeans fear their continent could lose part of its linguistic heritage as some of the smaller languages get pushed aside in the ever-expanding global village.

To protect Europe's linguistic diversity, the 40-state Council of Europe several years ago crafted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The charter provides for the use of such languages in education and the media, as well as in judicial and administrative settings.

At a conference reviewing the charter held earlier this month in Innsbruck, Austria, the Council of Europe brought together linguistic experts and officials. The charter, whose drafting dates back to the 1980s, took effect March 1, after the eighth Council member state had ratified it. The eight nations are Finland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Hungary, the Netherlands, Croatia, Switzerland and Germany. States that have signed but not yet ratified the treaty include Ukraine, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Slovenia.

Ferdinando Albanese, former director of the Council of Europe's environment and local authorities divisions, was one of the charter's drafters. He explained its uniqueness.

"When you give a right to a person, such as the right to express yourself in your mother language in public and private, you leave the government which ratified the document with the responsibility of defining how to exercise this right," he said.

"In other words, you give a right, but you don't define the condition under which it can be upheld before a court and so on and so forth. Now in this particular field of languages, we thought that what is more important is not to give a right and then the state must implement whatever way it wants. But rather to lay down a series of concrete measures for protecting the language."

Those concrete measures come under a charter clause which stipulates that signatory states must choose among 35 specific actions, under what the Council calls an "a la carte system," to promote and protect regional or minority languages. However, not covered by the treaty are languages of migrants and languages without a territorial base, such as Yiddish or Romany.

Applying the treaty may prove tricky in Europe where the minority-language landscape is complex, ranging from the seven million speakers of Catalan in Spain, to the few hundred speakers of Val in Italy. In between are minority languages spoken in only one country or region like Welsh in Wales, or languages spoken by only a few thousand but across several countries, like Sami, the language of the Laplanders of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia.

There are European languages which may be majority tongues in one state but a minority language in neighboring states, such as Hungarian and Croatian. Some existing languages and dialects are not even recognized as such. Ruthenian, spoken in Ukraine's remote Carpathian region, is not recognized as a separate language by Kyiv. Bulgarians view Macedonian as a dialect of their tongue and not as a separate language, as the Macedonians contend. Serbs and Croats argue over whether there are actually two languages, Serb and Croatian, or whether it is simply one.

Donall O'Riagain, Secretary General of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Langauges, says for the charter to succeed, common sense must prevail.

"For instance, if you provide for say primary education through the medium of the minority language, immediately practical problems arise such as the training of teachers, not only to use the language, but to actually use it as a medium of instruction. You have to produce pedagogical material, school books and so forth. And these present practical issues which have to be addressed and have to be dealt with and this is what I mean by workable. It's not just good enough to pass a law saying have primary education in the minority language, you have to find out how this can be done," O'Riagain said.

It is still far too early to call the charter a success. Only the Netherlands and Finland have made strong efforts to implement it, and some minority-language speakers are not very impressed with the results. Kristina Wikberg is one of about 300,000 Swedes living in Finland. She says the charter has had little practical effect in her life.

"We are happy that Finland has ratified it, but we see problems with the practice," said Wikberg. "Finland is very good at laws, it has many laws to give rights to minority-language communities. But then you go to practice to see how it really works and you find another word, which is not the same as you have in the laws."

Some question whether making concessions to minority languages could backfire. An Alsacian paper earlier this year asked, "Are government officials going to have to speak Alsacian even if they are Basque?" Other critics says the charter gives preference to minority languages at the expense of majority languages, and will also foster what they call the "atomization" of Europe.

But the Council of Europe's Albanese says the charter should have just the opposite effect. He says allaying people's fears of using their own native tongues will help create a united Europe. He also says that if languages are protected across the continent, then people will not fear the dissolution of national borders.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.